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on July 22, 2005
As many of you know, I rarely write about the craft of acting. My bailiwick is more properly described the "doing business" side of the acting profession. However, I do appreciate those who do write about the "nuts and bolts" of acting professionally, so I thought I'd share this review of David Mamet's latest book, True and False, which appeared in the August 04 issue of my newsletter, Hollywood How-To.
I first became acquainted with David Mamet when I worked on the Los Angeles production of American Buffalo in 1978. I must admit I didn't like the play very much but, hey, a gig is a gig.
A couple of years later I saw the PBS production of The Water Engine and I was engaged by the performance of William H. Macy - and I liked the premise of the piece. But I still thought the play was lacking.
Then I saw A Life In The Theatre and I became a fan. To me, it was the first play about acting that really got to the heart of the actor's life and problems. It was obviously written by someone who had a great love of acting and actors. It was a revelation.
I have watched Mamet's writing and directing career ever since. His book, Writing in Restaurants was one of my own touchstones as I pursued my own love of writing. It has become obvious over the intervening years that David Mamet is a force to be reckoned with in the American theatre. In the fullness of time I have no doubt that his influence will be considered crucial to the development of modern acting and story-telling.
When he made the move into motion pictures, first as a writer and then as writer/director, he delivered some of the most startling and amazing stories and performances of the late twentieth century - right up through today. Not that every time at bat was a home run - but every effort was unique and entrancing. Anyone who wants a glance "behind the scenes" of a movie production is advised to see State and Main which I believe is the truest and funniest portrayal of what goes on in the making of a movie.
His latest book, True and False, is the finest book I've read about acting since I first started reading Stanislavsky's trilogy (a must for every actor). Mamet cuts right to the chase in this amazing book. It is not a tome, but rather a short, blunt treatise on the craft of acting that I cannot recommend too highly.
Before you run out and get a copy though, I have a caveat: This book is not for the beginning actor. Until you have spent some time on the boards, plying your craft, much of what Mamet says might be confusing and perhaps even misleading. The reason is simple - this book was written for the employed actor who is looking for a useable method to build and sustain a performance in a professional setting.
That is not to say that every actor will not gain insight and inspiration from his words, it's just that those at the start of their career will not have the experience to draw from that Mamet's credo demands.
Spencer Tracy, arguably one of the finest film actors ever, is famously quoted as saying, about acting, "Just say the gags and don't bump into the furniture." This is a bon mot that has been repeated around green rooms and holding areas since Pluto was a pup, but few actors understand the import of it. Mamet sets out to explain exactly what Tracy was talking about (although he never mentions this quote) in a well thought out, brilliantly written argument.
Laurence Olivier once said it took him twenty years to learn how to be simple. Again, this is an important bit of information for the actor who strives for believability and "realness." And again, Mamet's book goes a long way toward educating us about the exact meaning of Olivier's comment.
This is a book that can be read in one sitting but it might take quite awhile for the information to "settle in." I found myself going back and re-reading, underlining and even writing down the many gems Mamet presents. His take on how to deal with producers, casting directors, other actors and critics is worth the price of the book alone.
Not only does he cover the basics of believable acting, the correct position of the actor in the story telling process and several methods of working - he also underscores the importance of the actor's psychology to the entire process of doing well in the acting profession. I found myself nodding in agreement on practically every page. If you can absorb and put to use the skills Mamet espouses, it is inconceivable that you will not become a more employable actor.
We see many actors at the top levels of the business today who can be classified as being of the "Chicago school." Most of these stars and well known character actors are utilizing the methods that Mamet explains. In fact, I don't think it is too much to say that modern acting owes much to David Mamet and those who follow his dictums.
If you have been acting for awhile and you are ready to take the next step in developing your craft, you will be doing yourself a favor by getting, reading and using David Mamet's True and False.
It's a modern classic.
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on June 7, 2000
David Mamet's book is a fierce attack upon Lee Strasberg's Method approach to acting. In addition, it contains his notions on the professional and personal lives of actors. Mamet believes that actors should merely deliver dialogue, perform blocking, and keep a single intention in mind during performance. Disregarding characterization as a "truthful" form of performance, Mamet believes that the Method creates "fake" acting. Though "Ham-It-Up" acting may result from the Method, the proper and temperamental utilization of the Method simply (and undeniably) stimulates the minds of the audience and makes the delivery of the author's plot more interesting, thought-provoking, and emotionally impacting. In short, David Mamet's book is a must-read for all serious actors. And though its content should be processed , pondered, and intellectualized, its tenets should not be wholly taken as facts. For the beginning actor, be very wary of following his directions to the "T." Though many things he says about actors and acting holds true, amateurs following his style of acting can gain very little fulfillment both professionally, and most important, emotionally. I recommend studying both Mamet and Strasberg's acting methods, practice, practice, practice, and find a median that works for you.
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on June 13, 1999
Mamet's book is excellent, and on the whole true, but often there is often something missing, and I realise this is sacrilege, and that thing missing is flavour. There is something a little too "well behaved" in Mamet's doctrine. Also, as Mamet himself would say, beware of doctrine. What is missing is something about "mucking around" and seeing what you can get away with. When something works it is self evident. Yes, the story is important, but so is how you tell it. There is something to be said for crash and burn acting. Mamet's book is the best. But it's a lot of FUN to break those rules. I saw an interview with Mamet where he admitted that there are times in rehearsal that all of his ideas about acting don't help. Basically his ideas are the jumping off point. Mamet says he may have been a criminal if not an artist. I feel that is what has been lost. Actors should be more on the criminal side than the side of the status quo. We should be human, not ACTORS.
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on December 1, 2002
Mamet is an infuriating author.
He calls Stanislavski a "hack," and yet his system is based upon a part of Stanislavski's system: the actor's objective.
Mamet derides acting schools, and yet the Atlantic Theater has an actor training program based upon the system that he devised. It's as if his system is the one "correct" one. (If Mamet were religious, he would make a great Baptist.)
Mamet's method is exclusive- it only provides for actor's working on a written text. What about actor's who are creating a piece of theatre? How are they to analyze their lines and find an objective? What if there are no lines? What if it is a piece based on sound and rhythm?
Mamet could pose very good answers to all of these questions. So could I. This is merely to demonstrate that Mamet seems to argue that everything he says is the truth with absoloute finality. Mamet is an infuriating author.
But the infuriation is well worth it. By forcing us to question our ideas about acting, school, etc. -- Mamet is doing a lot of good. Read this book. Be outraged. Be challenged. Question, think, and either you'll have been enlightened by Mamet or you'll come out having reinforced your own ideas.
It's a concise, lively read.
Cheers!
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on April 3, 2003
The chip is as big on Mamet's shoulder as the callus is thick on his dead soul. A product of his own marketing, a man whose reputation as a playwright is based on his ability to "capture the subtleties of the language of the day" of various stereotypes in modern western society, his plays become irrelevant ten years after their introduction to the world.
Irrelevant because the words no longer seem "brilliant or clever". Irrelevent because the petty lives of his petty inventions become dated. Irrelevant because the art of the actor, which he obviously despises, transcends the ".. strong voice, diction, ... supple, well proportioned body..." needed to give any dramatic piece longevity.
The actor as "craftsman" wastes much time worrying about pleasing the David Mamet's of the world. The actor as "artist" doesn't need to please the David Mamet's of the world, and in fact doesn't need words to communicate the life of the human spirit.
Give me Al Pacino. Give David Mamet Tom Cruise. Give me Dustin Hoffman. Give David Mamet Robert Redford. Give me Robert DuVall, Gene Hackman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Robert DeNiro, Bridget Fonda, Patricia Arquette, Martin Landau, Ellen Burstyn,
Mickey Rourke and Shelley Winters. Give David Mamet Luke Perry. Humbug to you, Mamet. Thanks to you, now I've got a chip on my shoulder.
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on September 30, 2001
This book--another fit of didacticism from a writer of highly uneven output--is a bracing experience. Mamet's thoughts are so simplistic, his tone so dogmatic, that he provokes you to define your own thinking more sharply. I therefore recommend the book highly.
I'd like to share one observation, out of the many that this book provoked in me: Mamet's own preference, it seems, is the flat, uninflected acting in most of his films. Compare, for instance, Lindsay Crouse's beautifully emotional work in Sidney Lumet's THE VERDICT with her strangely robotic work in Mamet's HOUSE OF GAMES. The disparity between the two performances--one directed by the Actors Studio-trained Lumet, the other directed by the virulently anti-method Mamet--points up a central, yet unacknowledged, truth: Mamet is advocating a particular style of acting. This style results from the action-oriented approach that he and his followers employ, but it is no more or less a style than that produced by the method techniques he decries. This may seem a minor point, but it is one that he would hotly deny, as he insists that he advocates a technique and not a style.
I should add that the book contains a number of incisive thoughts on ethics and professionalism. So valuable were these that I typed them up and put them on my wall. They kept me sane through a difficult summer with a professional theatre company. The book is worth its price for these alone.
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on June 13, 2003
Engaging. Insightful. Funny. Deadly serious. Most of all, True.
My brother is a professional repetoiry actor in Ft. Worth, Texas. When we met for Christmas two years ago, he couldn't stop talking about this book. I honestly regret not rushing out and buying it then and there. This is useful, actual information about the process of good acting. If you act, buy this book and read it now.
I haven't done traditional theater in over a decade, but even as a slam poet and improvisational comedian, I found what Mamet shares in "True and False" invaluable in approaching my work as a live performer. If you do anything involving words, a stage and an audience, you'll find something useful here. Simply put, what he says works.
The writing is short, eloquent, and straight to the point. The topics he touches on by way of analogy and example make this a great read for actors and non-actors, alike. You can plough through this book in an afternoon, but you'll ponder it and reconsider it for the rest of your professional life. At least, you should, if you want to benefit from it.
He says it best... The audience will teach you to act. They will show you what works and what doesn't. If your job onstage becomes anything more or less than to communicate what the audience has come to see, you may be brilliant, but you're not acting anymore. Chasing emotions you don't feel about a situation you're not actually in is the job of the writer, not the performer.
You probably won't agree with 100% of what he has to say. Scratch that, you *won't* agree with everything here, but even then, he will force you to reconsider what you do believe. And, just what is the jist of what his supposedly "heretical" views on acting?
Speak clearly. Find a simple, realistic objective for the scene. Let the words have their meaning without adding your own spin to them. Your own effective performance in their service will add anything of value that the audience couldn't have gotten from reading them off the page.
Now, what's so false about that?
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on April 6, 2001
Mamet, an educator himself, immediately on the first read of this simple, direct and painfully blunt treatise caused me to completely overhaul my own approaches in training young actors.
So much of acting training can be based in either psuedo- pyschoanalytical academic trivia or blind hero worship and name dropping.I myself proved guilty of such crimes- as I am sure all directors, actors and acting teachers have. Mamet, in 127 pages debunks all these false posings and boils theatre art down into simple truths, and causes one invovled in these noble professions to do a radical sould searching and simplify their lives and approaches.
Especially helpful are his chapters on "Talent", "Ancestor Worship", "The Rehearsal Process", "Emotions" (how many times have all actors been crippled by the lie that they aren't connecting emotionally enough to a part!), "I'm on the Corner" and "Action". In a few well selected words, Mamet is able to de-mystify the theatre while celebrating the magic it does produce.
Add this immediately to your shelf. Whether you end up agreeing or disaggreeing is immaterial. It will cause you to re-evalaute!
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on June 13, 2003
Engaging. Insightful. Funny. Deadly serious. Most of all, True.
My brother is a professional repetoiry actor in Ft. Worth, Texas. When we met for Christmas two years ago, he couldn't stop talking about this book. I honestly regret not rushing out and buying it then and there. This is useful, actual information about the process of good acting. If you act, buy this book and read it now.
I haven't done traditional theater in over a decade, but even as a slam poet and improvisational comedian, I found what Mamet shares in "True and False" invaluable in approaching my work as a live performer. If you do anything involving words, a stage and an audience, you'll find something useful here. Simply put, what he says works.
The writing is short, eloquent, and straight to the point. The topics he touches on by way of analogy and example make this a great read for actors and non-actors, alike. You can plough through this book in an afternoon, but you'll ponder it and reconsider it for the rest of your professional life. At least, you should, if you want to benefit from it.
He says it best... The audience will teach you to act. They will show you what works and what doesn't. If your job onstage becomes anything more or less than to communicate what the audience has come to see, you may be brilliant, but you're not acting anymore. Chasing emotions you don't feel about a situation you're not actually in is the job of the writer, not the performer.
You probably won't agree with 100% of what he has to say. Scratch that, you *won't* agree with everything here, but even then, he will force you to reconsider what you do believe. And, just what is the jist of what his supposedly "heretical" views on acting?
Speak clearly. Find a simple, realistic objective for the scene. Let the words have their meaning without adding your own spin to them. Your own effective performance in their service will add anything of value that the audience couldn't have gotten from reading them off the page.
Now, what's so false about that?
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on September 9, 2001
In general, I have been a huge fan of Mamet's other books on various topics related to entertainment. Nevertheless, this one left me a little hollow. There were certainly some pearls of wisdom, but people would have to dig deeply to find them in this book.
On the positive side, I like that Mamet attempts to steer Actors away from their rituals and instead plant in their heads that they need to show up and do the job... it is that simple. "There is no character arc... there is no motivation." Having directed 6 films, I can relate to how damaging the "character arc" in an actors head can be. Leave the "character arc" to the director... it is his or her job to follow the melody of the film.
Another positive detail was his emphasis on becoming a true artist... and how a true artist longs for the theater or any role - not just fame. I was particularly happy with his discussion on people that have backup plans... as he states they will end up doing their backup plan. I like his notion that in order to succeed you must bind your life blood to the task at hand.
Here I am trying to come up with the positives, and I am having a difficult time. I think that therefore leads me into the negatives. This book is nearly impossible to decipher, even for an intelligent person. It reads like the Torah in ancient Hebrew. While I am sure there are plenty that can do that, it is pretty damn difficult, and in this case - I would argue not worth the time.
The next dangerous thing that really screams out was his emphasis on not going to school to study. I certainly understand this, because an "untalented" actor that goes to school may become even worse if they are misguided. Nevertheless, there are plenty of people that I have worked with that were infinitely better after having had some formal training. Thus, I am concerned that "would be" actors reading this book will use it as an excuse or validation for their not seeking training... which could (and likely will) damage their chances for getting roles.
Again, I could continue to go on, but why bother... especially since I think that is my ultimate feeling on this book---Why bother? (Check out his other books like "Writing in Restaurants" to see his true genius come out)
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